|Friday, 8 November 2002|
Nov. 9th is the 103rd birth anniversary of Prof. G. P. Malalasekera : Scholar who blazed a new trail for Lanka
by J. A. K. Jayakody
Gunapala Malalasekera was born on 9th November, 1899 in Malamulla, one of the nine Mullas of Panadura. His father was an ayurvedic physician, a reputed scholar of Pali and Sanskrit. The genius in the little boy amazed his father.
The Pali and Sanskrit stanzas recited by father were stored in the child's mind forever and he recited them fluently at the age of four years. Not deviating from the order of the day and traditional practice, father took him to the Uyankelle beach, behind his dispensary at an auspicious time for his first attempt at learning letters. St. John's College, Panadura the well-known seat of learning was selected for his education.
He learned English, Latin and Greek with other subjects under the able guidance of educationist, Cyril Jansz.
But erudite father took upon himself to complete his knowledge by teaching Pali, Sanskrit, Ayurveda and Buddhism which stood him in good stead in his later life, to be a leader of international level.
Showing that his mental capacity was far ahead of his age at the age of nine having listened to a didactic discourse delivered at a meeting held in Rankoth Viharaya, Panadura by Anagarika Dharmapala to disseminate the ideals of the Temperance Movement, which was the catalytic force for national reawakening, he gave up his name "George Peiris", given at birth and was reborn as Gunapala Piyasena.
At the age of 14 he passed the London Matriculation with flying colours. His father wanted to make him a medical doctor and at the age of 17 he entered the Medical Faculty of University College but father's untimely death and economic constraints which cropped up on the way made him bid farewell to medical science, proving that one's destiny can't be diverted. Be that as it may, on the advice of his mentor, Anagarika Dharmapala, he followed the London BA and passed the Western Classics and Western Philosophy with honours.
Having recognised his attainments, P. de S. Kularatne, a great educationist and the principal of newly established Ananda College, Colombo enlisted G. P. Malalasekera to the tutorial staff of the college. When he left for England in 1926 to proceed with his higher education, he had served Ananda College as Vice Principal and as Acting Principal.
The epoch-making, celebrated Panadura controversy led by Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, held in his home town, inspired and reinforced his awakening.
Prof. Malalasekera is one of the first personalities who changed his dress from trousers to clothe and banian which is the symbol of "Social Worker" today.
Etching his name in the history of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London University, he passed the `Degree of Master' and `Doctor of Philosophy' concurrently. He was fortunate to be guided by distinguished scholars such as R. L. Turner, L. D. Barnette, W. Steds Caroline and Rhys Davids.
When he returned completing his overseas studies, he was assigned to the helm of Nalanda College.
In 1928 he became a lecturer in Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit at the University College in Colombo.
The same year the most coveted degree of "Doctor of Letters" was conferred on him by the London University.
In 1939 he became Professor of Pali at University College, Colombo and when Peradeniya University was established in 1942 he was appointed Professor of Pali and Buddhist Civilisation and the Dean of Faculty of Oriental Studies.
Fifty four years ago, G. P. Malalasekera in his introduction to his "English-Sinhala Dictionary", one of his major works, has written, ``this book is an attempt to supply what has been a long felt need in Ceylon, a good English dictionary on the line of the best practical modern bilingual dictionaries. How far this has been achieved, I certainly leave to users of the book to judge." Yes, the records inform that the dictionary has taken the proportion of a household name.
Indeed, a great asset to ordinary people, researchers, not to mention the professionals. So much is the contribution of the book to the bilinguality of this little Indian ocean island.
To say the least, even today with the impact of technology of communication and computer sciences reflected in every sphere, in a revolutionary proportion, one of the most appreciated gifts by a discerning Sri Lankan student is the gift of a Malalasekera English-Sinhala Dictionary.
For his valuable research work, 'Dictionary of Pali Proper Names' honoured by Buddhist and Pali scholars all over the world, he was awarded the D Litt Degree. The honorary awards conferred on him from the universities in other countries prove the recognition he had earned all over the world.
He was Lanka's first ambassador to the Soviet Union. Later he served as Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Poland, Rumania and Czechoslovakia and as High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in Canada and the United Kingdom and as Permanent Representative for Sri Lanka in the United Nations Organisation from 1959-1967. On his return from diplomatic service he was appointed Chairman of the National Council of Higher Education.
It is a recorded, open secret that in 1959 after the assassination of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, Mrs. Bandaranaike requested Prof. Malalasekera, who was, then Sri Lanka's representative at the UN to take up the premiership which he courteously turned down indicating politics was not his line.
His services as the Editor in Chief of the 'Encyclopaedia of Buddhism' and his contribution to the national organisations of the day are appreciated in all quarters even today.
The book 'Biographical Anthology of Dr. Gunapala Malalasekera' written by his daughter Chitra Malalasekera Ranawake, is a mirror reflecting her father Prof. G. P. Malalasekera, a great 'Lanka Putra' who passed away on 23rd April, 1973.
Produced by Lake House